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The price of prosperity: Dickinson makes its case to remain a Hub City

The oil boom that recently struck the Bakken provided a huge influx of money to North Dakota, but the cost of that success was absorbed by so-called "Hub Cities" whose request for more aid is under scrutiny. The problem is the need for more state...

Members of the Energy Transmission and Development Committee the Public Safety Center in Dickinson on Tuesday afternoon. (Sydney Mook / The Dickinson Press)
Members of the Energy Transmission and Development Committee the Public Safety Center in Dickinson on Tuesday afternoon. (Sydney Mook / The Dickinson Press)

The oil boom that recently struck the Bakken provided a huge influx of money to North Dakota, but the cost of that success was absorbed by so-called "Hub Cities" whose request for more aid is under scrutiny.

The problem is the need for more state funds critical to the cities to be able to pay off the debts for the boom.

"Most people define a fast-growing metropolitan area or city as 2 percent of annual growth or more," Dickinson City Administrator Shawn Kessel said during a public meeting of the Energy Transmission and Development Committee in Dickinson on Tuesday afternoon. It was the culmination of a two-day series of tours and presentations to the committee to make the case for why Dickinson should remain a Hub City.

"In 2010 ... the City of Dickinson had 10 percent annual growth. That's five times what most people consider a fast-growing city. That's really hard to wrap your mind around."

Kessel was among the last speakers to come before the members of the committee, which was led by Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner as chairman. The committee had toured Dickinson's various public institutions, from the Public Works building to the Public Safety Center to the schools and airport-all places that have in some way been touched upon by the rapid expansion that the oil boom brought to the city.

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"I would like to express the need for continued funding for hub cities and to reiterate the increases in need for services and infrastructure provided by the county, schools and airport will not go away," Dickinson Mayor Scott Decker said. "Oil production and development are once again increasing and with the demand on our police, schools, fire department, landfill and our health facilities we will see an ever-growing demand on our infrastructure and a demand for more dollars."

There was much talk about a resurgence of oil and gas activity in the Dickinson area.

One of the lengthiest presentations came from Shawn Gaddie, a financial group manager for AE2S Nexus, a consulting firm. Gaddie offered projections for further growth of Dickinson that see the population of the city reaching close to 29,000 people by 2023. These projections also see an increase of staffing needs for the city and an increase in the need for new additions to the fleet of police, fire, sanitation and other public utility vehicles.

Sen. Merrill Piepkorn, D-District 44, wanted more certainty to these projections.

"How solid are the projections that (Gaddie) is making, based on our current practices in the Legislature in maintaining the funding that will result in these figures," Piepkorn asked. "Is that something we can depend on?"

Rep. Gary Sukut, R-District 1, acknowledged that projections are difficult to work with.

"You have to start somewhere," Sukut said. "These are probably as good of projections as we have to work with at this point in time."

Sen. Wardner echoed that sentiment.

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"We're looking at today's prices. I think these numbers are as good as we're going to get. That's why we're here-to make sure we can make plans," Wardner said. "The price of oil will go up and down. We're just wanting to make sure the oil-producing counties get their fair share of property tax. If it goes down, it goes down, we have to live with that."

The bottom line comes down to the simple fact that Dickinson invested in the infrastructural needs it required in order to be competitive on the energy market as the Bakken is not the only region where oil and gas activity is plentiful. One of the bigger talking points across the myriad presentations was how attractive Dickinson really is, particularly in terms of cost of living.

Gaddie reported that Dickinson's cost of living is over 12 percent higher than the national average.

Kessel relayed a story as to how he heard from a cab driver in San Antonio that his friend, who works in the Bakken fields, would not be returning for a fourth year, citing the cold and the high cost of living as drawbacks to the otherwise well-paying work.

"It costs more to live here. Those are the numbers (Gaddie) was showing you," Kessel said. "He's not going to come back to North Dakota, because it's too expensive. It's real. People are choosing not to come to North Dakota because of the cost of living."

Kessel said that he thinks that the city has mostly made "the right decisions" in terms of investing oil money and he presented a list of awards and accolades that the community has earned over the years, including being named Best Small Town in the U.S. in 2013 by Livability.com. Keeping up that quality of life was a clear goal.

"We must continue to build our great city and county, providing our citizens the quality of life projects to (ensure) they stay here and call southwest North Dakota home," Decker said.

At the close of the meeting the committee issued a few comments-Sen. David Rust saying that he had wished he had heard more input from other Stark County communities.

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"Personally I would have wanted to have heard from some of the surrounding cities and schools in Stark County," Rust said. "Because a change in the Hub City school funding has significant implications for those counties. If Hub Cities were to go away ... these smaller cities, like South Heart and Belfield, would get a ... pittance of dollars."

He suggested getting the smaller cities and schools to reach out to the Legislature to emphasize how important the Hub City status is to them.

This is the second of three planned meetings on and at the Hub Cities under scrutiny. The final meeting will be in Minot on Nov. 29 and 30.

Related Topics: RICH WARDNER
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